It’s been nine years since the former Red Rider front man released his last solo recording, `No Stranger’ but with `Take It Home’ and a current 14-date Canadian tour in support of his new release, Cochrane has tapped into those creative juices and created 11 new tracks which critics are lauding as one of his best ever records to date.

Check out the steel guitar intro to the record’s debut single, “Diamonds” and it’s obvious from the get-go that a strong country music influence is evident. An element that comes as no surprise considering U.S country band Rascal Flatts’ version of Cochrane’s monster hit, “Life Is A Highway” soared all the way to #10 on the Billboard top 100 charts and #20 on Billboard’s country music charts in 2006, with the track featured in the Pixar movie `Cars’.

And yes, there are heavy elements of steel guitar, banjos and Cochrane’s trademark harmonica in the arrangements with several lyrical mentions of New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville, but taking a break from rehearsals for a mini tour that headed to Western Canada in late February before a Maritime/Ontario swing in early March, Cochrane insists he developed this new direction honestly.

“If anything this is an outlaw rock record,” noted Cochrane of his new opus. “This is not Tom Cochrane going country, I come by these influences honestly. It’s a fact that country is the new rock. You go to country music shows now and these guys are playing rock music. When I went on stage with Rascal Flatts for the first time, it was in Edmonton and the city had just honoured former Oilers’ player, Mark Messier so I wore a Messier sweater  and there were like 17,000 people going wild. These Rascal Flatts’ guys played a 40-minute rock medley of like Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin and it was a real eye-opener for me because I hadn’t been to a country music concert before.”[youtube width=”600″ height=”400″ video_id=”u-Fg0x1SKWI”]

“Virtually any current music that has guitars in it is country music,” observed Cochrane. “Rock and Pop music has its roots in country. Keith Richards is a passionate Hank Williams fan, look what happened when Robert Plant toured with Allison Krauss. Anybody who is a good rock n roller has connections with country music.

Cochrane, himself comes by his country music influence honestly. Before he fronted the prog rock influenced Red Rider, he was a singer in Toronto coffee houses and as he discovered Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album, he also became a fan of Johnny Cash who sang vocals on “Girl From The North Country”

Check out my `Mad Mad World’ record (1991), some of that was recorded in Memphis and there are definite country elements in some of the production,” he notes. “And my wife Kathleene and I reside part time in Austin, Texas so we’ve seen the country rock scene develop there over the years.

The Essence of `Take it Home’ comes from a sense that Cochrane had some unfinished business to settle creatively, even though he’s won numerous awards including 5 Juno awards , inductions into Canada’s Walk Of Fame, The Canadian Music Hall Of Fame , Music Industry Hall of Fame and a treasured Order Of Canada citation . “I wasn’t content to let things rest where they sat,” he allowed. “I just had this over-powering feeling that I haven’t given my best yet. There’s a retrospective feeling about this record that I had something left unsaid that needed to be said.”

Stirring from his self-imposed `bus-man’s holiday’, Cochrane felt a sense of creativity coming on that allowed him to tackle the scores of sketches he had developed as potential song-writing material. “I have hundreds of those sketches, which are just bits of ideas but to me, the idea has to resonate as a song. “Life Is A Highway” started out that way. I had the sketch of an idea but it wasn’t until I returned from a World Vision trip to Africa that I developed a certain image  that I could attach that idea to.

Initially Cochrane didn’t have much to work with, just a couple of left-over songs, one of them “Diamonds”, the album’s initial single (featuring support vocals from Autumn Hill’s Taryea Greene)  , was written about his co-producer Bill Bell’s ex wife Tara. They had fallen in love , got married and broke up during my “Songs Of The Circling Spirit (1997) album, the whole bit,  so I wrote the song for her,” Cochrane explained. “For whatever reason, Tara never recorded the song but when it came to the new album, Bill insisted that we record it, even though it was written for his ex wife.”

Take It Home debuts the voice of English soul singer Beverly Knight who leaves her vocal mark on a number of the record’s key tracks including “Pink Time”, “Country Girl” and “The Ones That I’ve Known” “Kathleene and I met Beverley in Austin, She is one of England’s top soul singers , she has sold something like three million records over there but no one over here as ever heard of her. She had come over to discover America so I invited her to sing on a charity record I was making for A.J Cale. When we heard her voice my though was; `It’s amazing when you touch genius’.

“So I invited her to sing on one of my new songs “Pink Time”, She did and we were all breathless,” Cochrane explained. “Then she returned to Europe to appear in the stage production of “Bodyguard” (where she reprised Whitney Houston’s role) in Paris, we flew over to catch the premiere and invited her and her husband James (a former UFC fighter) to come to Canada to help with the recording sessions. She’d be on the deck of our cottage on Georgian Bay, she’d hear us rehearsing and she’d say (mimicking her English accent) “Oh it sounds like you’re having fun upstairs, can I join in”

Although the musical arrangements are strongly influenced by country music, there’s no denying  Cochrane has not lost his magic in spinning a great and poignant lyrical story around his compositions. “Pink Time” might be about the colour of the sky just before dusk, Tom and his wife enjoyed during their Caribbean vacations but it’s also about the female character of the story suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. Likewise “A Prayer For Hope” tells a heart-wrenching story which Cochrane himself witnessed in Africa about a young mother who was dying but had to deal with her young daughter who was also dying of HIV. “It was so hard to take, watching what they were going through.”

In what Cochrane calls possibly the finest song he has ever written, “The One’s That I’ve Known” manages to lyrically juxtapose Rosa Parks, the lady who’s action in not giving up her seat on the bus, thus sparking the American Civil Rights Movement with Terry Fox, the one-legged cancer victim who gallantly failed in his quest to run across Canada to raise funds for cancer research in 1980.

“One of the best lines I have ever written is featured in that song; “Sometimes it feels like I’ve been down so far, I feel like I’ve disappeared”, explained Cochrane. “That’s how I feel Rosa Parks felt. “I’m not moving to the back of the bus because I don’t care what you do to me – you can’t do anymore.”

Cochrane was especially affected by the gallantry of Fox and was inspired to write this song after meeting Terry’s father and brother at Terry’s induction into the 2013 Canada’s Walk Of Fame. “I actually saw Terry run during his last day before he had to stop,” reflected Cochrane. “Red Rider was in a station wagon travelling from Winnipeg to Toronto when we saw him. To see that kid running with rain, or maybe it was tears streaming down his face was very inspirational to me. At that time, I was having doubts about my own career, but when I saw Terry run I thought to myself, compared to what he’s going through, how tough can this be for me! I’ve got my health, I’m making music for a living, let’s give it a while longer, let’s keep at it.”

Critics have compared “Country Girl Never Gets Old” to “Big League” in both the song’s arrangement and a similar lyrical message, only this one is about a girl who tries to break free from a disruptive home environment by pursuing a singing career, only to find the pressures of stardom to much to take,  and again provides a brilliant vocal contribution from Ms Knight.

Cochrane off-sets the poignancy of most of the tracks’ 11 songs with “Sunday Afternoon Hang”, a feel-good romp about the joys of hanging out at the cottage by the lake with a six-pack on a sunny weekend. “Even Kenny (Greer), Cochrane’s Red Rider guitarist remarked “that’s a little light for you, what are you trying to do?” My reaction is, not everything has to be heavy. We Canadians pay our dues big time to survive the winter so when we do get those two or three months of sunny weather we can appreciate it more than most people.”

Cochrane doesn’t expect to be greeted in Nashville with open arms but he does take pride in the album and the direction he has been able to direct his music. “This country thing has given me focus. I was  realizing the music I always wanted to record and I’m satisfied with that. Is it country? I don’t know but I like it because it is focused and it’s pure and it’s honest.”

In acknowledging the nine-year gap between records, Cochrane stated that he’s always creating but he needs to get the material to a particular level before he considers recording his compositions. “I am always creating ideas and I could do a record every year if I really wanted to – but the question is, is it going to be a good record! A record has got to mean something. There’s no point putting out a record and thinking you’re going to sell a million copies – unless you happen to be called Taylor Swift, those days are gone. At the end of the day though, I want to look in the mirror and be proud of what I accomplished.”

Next stop  for Cochrane and his Red Rider cohorts is to take their show on the road for a brisk 14-date national jaunt that includes a date at Toronto’s Massey Hall on Friday March 13th. So with his plethora of material, how does Cochrane decide what to include and exclude from his set list?

“There’s about 10 songs that are none-negotiable. Songs like “Life Is A Highway”,  “Big League”,” White Hot” that we have to play and we want to play them because it’s those songs that get the crowd to respond but I’d like to at least play five or six songs off the new album,” explained Cochrane who notes that Beverly Knight will not be part of his band (she is appearing in the “Nashville” theatre production being staged in London) but her spot has been taken by Jessica Mitchell, a London, Ontario country-rocker protege of Gary Slaight’s Slaight Music operation..

Looking ahead, Cochrane feels he’s at the third stage of a career that was initially launched with Red Rider in the early 80’s that spawned seven studio albums (including Neruda), graduating on to his own solo career that has also featured seven studio recordings.

“I remember being on stage with Bruce Springsteen and we’re rocking and sweating and it was just like being 19 years old again,” reflected Cochrane. “At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. The key is always to stay in touch with your roots and just enjoy what you are doing”.

Photo by Charles Hope.

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